Free Webinar from NEHGS/American Ancestors – 21 March 2019

Using and Evaluating Published Genealogies

Thursday, March 21, 3:00–4:00 PM EDT
Presented by Alicia Crane Williams, FASG
FREE and open to the public


Following the advent of American genealogy in the early to mid-19th century, thousands of genealogies were published featuring families across the country. While largely uncited—and arguably biased—these early works continue to be an important resource for modern day family historians. Join Lead Genealogist of the Early New England Families Study Project and frequent contributor to the Vita Brevis blog, Alicia Crane Williams, to learn how you can access, evaluate, and utilize early published family histories in your research.

Click HERE to Register.

From iBerkshires: Pine Cobble Alumnus Give Students DNA Lesson

By Rebecca Dravis – iBerkshires Staff – Sunday, March 03, 2019

WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — Before Tyler DeWitt did a TED Talk, before he had a website and a YouTube channel, before he received his Ph.D. in microbiology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, before he taught high school chemistry and biology in both the United States and South Korea, before he was a National Science Foundation fellow, he was just a student at Pine Cobble School.

On Feb. 27, DeWitt returned to the private school from which he graduated in 1997. It wasn’t his first time back; he actually spoke at the school’s commencement ceremony in 2013 and helped facilitate a STEAM summer camp session in 2018. And as often as he can, he comes back to Pine Cobble to try to make science fun for this generation of students.

And so on Feb. 27, in front of the school’s students who were as little as pre-K and kindergarteners and as big as eighth- and ninth-graders, DeWitt bounced around the room to give an energetic science lesson on a subject that could potentially be scary: DNA.

That’s deoxyribonucleic acid, not something to do with the “appetite of dinosaurs,” as one student suggested.

“You can see why people use the abbreviation,” DeWitt said.

Using a combination of slides and audience participation, an energetic DeWitt walked the students through the meaning of DNA. DNA determines a person’s traits or characteristics, like eye color or height, or even the characteristics of a plant, like what color flowers it has or how big its leaves are. DNA is found in every part of the body, in the nucleus of cells, he said, showing pictures of cells magnified to give the students a clearer idea of what he was talking about.

“They’re so tiny that you need hundreds or thousands to see even one,” he said.

The best science, of course, is hands-on, and so DeWitt came prepared to lead the students on an exploration of their own DNA. He wasn’t able to do that during his presentation, as they ran out of time, but he demonstrated with his own body and assured the students he was providing their teachers the materials they needed to do the experiment back in their classroom.

This was after he assured the students the experiment would be painless, after one student suggested they would need needles to extract DNA.

“This is silly and fun and it doesn’t hurt at all,” he said.

Instead of drawing blood, he said, the best place to get DNA samples? A person’s cheek, which he said was teeming with cells.

“Your cheeks have cells that are coming off all the time,” he said.

And so, he got down to it: He told the students he was going to take a sip of water, swish the water around his mouth for 60 seconds to really loosen those cells, and then spit the water into a cup. Which he did, as the students counted up to 60 to time him. (They tried, but it was actually 48 seconds.)

“Now I have some spit here that’s filled with cheeky cells,” he said to a chorus of both giggles and “eews” from the students.

Those cheeky cells were transferred to a test tube, a chemical was added to help break open the cells, some regular rubbing alcohol was added to “let the DNA come out of the cells” … and then he let it sit for a few minutes before “long strings” started to “bubble out.”

“Those are the DNA,” he said.

He carried the test tube around to show all the students, and even held it as the students filed past him out of the room to go home for the day, buzzing about when they would get a chance to do their own swishing and spitting.

“That was amazing,” one student said.

Watching them leave the school where he spent so many of his formative years, DeWitt said he comes back to Pine Cobble as much as he can. He said he appreciates the way the school is “all about creative learning,” even more so now than he when we was a student in the 1990s.

“It’s so cool,” he said, adding that he loves seeing the students “excited and engaged” with science. “They have a lot of energy.”

Associated Press: Potential privacy lapse found in Americans’ 2010 census data



WASHINGTON — An internal team at the Census Bureau found that basic personal information collected from more than 100 million Americans during the 2010 head count could be reconstructed from encrypted data, but with lots of mistakes, a top agency official disclosed Saturday.

The age, gender, location, race and ethnicity for 138 million people were potentially vulnerable. So far, however, only internal hacking teams have discovered such details at possible risk, and no outside groups are known to have grabbed data intended to remain private for 72 years, chief scientist John Abowd told a scientific conference.

The Census Bureau is now scrapping its old data shielding technique for a state-of-the-art method that Abowd claimed is far better than Google’s or Apple’s.

Some former agency chiefs fear the potential privacy problem will add to the worries that people will avoid answering or lie on the once-every-10 year survey because of the Trump administration’s attempt to add a much-debated citizenship question.

The Supreme Court on Friday announced that it would rule on that proposed question, which has been criticized for being political and not properly tested in the field. The census count is hugely important, helping with the allocation of seats in the House of Representatives and distribution of billions of dollars in federal money.

The 8 billion pieces of statistics in census data are supposed to jumbled in a way so what is released publicly for research cannot identify individuals for more than seven decades. In 2010, the Census Bureau did this by swapping similar household information from one city to another, according to Duke University statistics professor Jerome Reiter.

In the internal tests, Abowd said, officials were able to match of 45 percent of the people who answered the 2010 census with information from public and commercial data sets such as Facebook. But errors in this technique meant that only data for 52 million people would be completely correct — little more than 1-in-6 of the U.S. population.

He said the 2010 census used the best possible privacy protection available, but hackers since then have become more skilled in reconstructing data. To counter their growing abilities, the agency has completely changed the system for 2020 and will offer the “gold standard” of privacy regardless of the fate of the citizenship question, Abowd said.

“We got ahead of it. That was our goal,” Abowd said at the American Association for the Advancement of Science’s annual meeting.

Georgetown University provost Robert Groves, who headed the 2010 census, said the count had the proper privacy and that every census improves. He lauded the new steps.

Former agency chief Kenneth Prewitt, a professor of policy at Columbia University, said the basic information such as age and ethnicity, even if publicly revealed, isn’t as big a deal as other data breaches.

“There is a widespread privacy anxiety out there that is very much related to Facebook and Google and so forth,” Prewitt said. “I’m much more worried about the fact that my iPhone follows me around every day” and that Apple sells that information to companies.

The new system involves complex mathematical algorithms that inject “noise” into the data, making it harder to get accurate information and providing “a very strong guarantee” of privacy, said Duke University computer sciences professor Ashwin Machanavajjhala.

This increases privacy while lowering the accuracy for researchers who use the statistics. Think of it as one set of knobs being dialed up while a second is dialed down at the same time.

The decision on the official privacy/accuracy setting for 2020 hasn’t been set. Abowd said policy officials, not engineers or scientists, will make that call.

The Census Bureau tried this system in a 2018 survey using an ultra-strict privacy setting that, while not directly comparable to Google or Apple, is hundreds if not thousands of times more secure for privacy than what’s now being used on data from searches using Google Chrome or Apple’s iPhone, Duke’s Reiter said.

Prewitt suggested the public might not understand the extra efforts underway for the 2020 count but would be spooked by the disclosure about the privacy vulnerability, making people more reluctant to comply with the next census.

If the administration succeeds in adding the citizenship question, “there will be a huge evasion of it (the census) and some selective misuse of it,” Prewitt said.

Whether some avoid the survey because of it or lie, neither is a good outcome, making the data less usable, Prewitt said.

Groves said technical experts have serious problems with the citizenship question because it hasn’t been tested in the field, as all census questions usually are. He compared it to putting a new drug on the market before the necessary testing.

“Very subtle wording and positional changes in a thing like the Census can have enormous impact way beyond what we as humans can predict,” Groves said

From “The Associated Press” – February 28, 2019

Stephen and Tabitha King give $1.25M to Genealogical Society

BOSTON (AP) — Stephen King and his wife, fellow novelist Tabitha King, have donated $1.25 million to the New England Historic Genealogical Society.

The Kings made the gift through their foundation.

The Boston-based organization is the nation’s oldest and largest genealogical society. It says it will use the gift announced Tuesday to develop educational programming and fund a curriculum in family history for public school students.

It will also help the organization expand its headquarters.

Brenton Simons is president and CEO of the society. He says the money will have “far-reaching benefits.”

The society says the Kings have deep personal interest in family and local history and their importance in education.